The Beast, The Accent: On being a ‘Post-Migrant'

Maria Tumarkin emigrated to Australia from the former Soviet Union in 1989. She reflects on her memories of ‘being new’, of compulsively doing ‘compare and contrast’ with the old country and the new … and how she eventually fell for Australia, despite remaining unreconciled to it.

A man I was once married to back in the previous century – speaking, some time after the marriage was over, from one of Europe’s megalopolises – called Australia ‘a nation of sunken ships’. And to me, for whom, by that point, he wished little else, he wished an easy and swift escape. Run, he said, Maria, run.

He got to me then. (I got to him too, making sure he missed out on Australian citizenship: my most patriotic, most spiteful, action ever.)

Sunken. Not even sinking.

Ira Glass, from the indispensable This American Life radio show, said in an interview once that many of his fellow Americans had a childhood story at the ready to explain to others, and invariably to themselves – who they are and how they’ve come to be. I have my immigrant stories for that same purpose. Most migrants do. I am bored by mine. Feels ridiculous to pull them out, like hanging out long-since-dry washing. It’s been twenty-two years.

New migrants come – they are new, and I am old; an old dog – and I see them, carless, at bus and tram stops with plastic supermarket bags cutting into their fingers. Last year I saw hundreds, with cars, at the Oakleigh branch of VicRoads the day before their registration was due, coming up to the ticket dispenser in the corner, the one that places you in queues, and peering into its screen like they were newborn kittens, listening hard to the instructions given by the voice in the machine. Not for the faint-hearted, that voice: so patient, so polite. Diabolically incomprehensible too – like this country all round.

I am a professional translator, one with a stamp. New migrants come to me – they are new, and I am old; old at being new – with their birth certificates and degree certificates and divorce certificates, with their recommendation letters from ballet academies and oil rigs. I translate statutory declarations from Russian women whose Australian husbands thought they were procuring themselves model Russian wives, wives unspoilt by all the gender equality bullshit, and the husbands (lovely guys, some of them) on discovering that this was not, or not totally, the case, went all kinds of berserk.

I translate declarations from men too, screwed dry by my female compatriots. It makes me wonder if mixed marriages are doomed, especially when you bring a person in from another place to marry them. I think a lot about mixed marriages, partly because as W.H. Auden said – ‘Any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance’ – and partly because the happy and enduring mixed marriage, the kind I don’t get to see in my little bureau of dysfunction and demise, seems to me the true test of multiculturalism. Can it work? Does it last? Is it for real?

I see shock – a fish-out-of-water convulsing shock – on new arrivals’ faces. I have been in Australia too long to feel it.

I think a lot, too, about being new, now that I am anything but; about coming to a place where you have no past, no one remembers you, nothing is in its place. That feeling of everything – the distance between earth and sky, the smell of sweat on passers-by, the sound of water lunging out of a tap, the way people spread their bodies on trams – being not the way you’ve always, unthinkingly, known it to be.

Are there five stages of the expat experience, as once believed we had with grief? (A dogma well past its prime, yes, challenged to smithereens by now – but a not entirely irrelevant point of comparison?)

Actually, I have a better question: how come the whole idea of culture shock seems so very beige now, so domesticated, as if the ‘shock’ in culture shock is a piquant little jolt, good for circulation, edifying even?

I see shock – a fish-out-of-water convulsing shock – on new arrivals’ faces. I have been in Australia too long to feel it. But I remember how it feels: looking into your new life is like staring at the sun; it burns your retina. There are moments when half of Australia feels this shock, not the full brunt, just enough to count, to shake us off our chairs – the moment in December 2010, for instance, when an asylum-seeker boat crashed into cliffs off Christmas Island, sinking within our field of vision, and we watched Christmas Islanders watch children cling to bits of boat wreckage, and drown. We – alive. They, children and adults – dead. Have you seen those images?

‘A nation of sunken ships,’ the man who didn’t like Australia called us. Sunken. Not even sinking.

‘Australia is a good place to retire to.’ He said that too. I remember hating him for it. Maybe I even hung the phone up on him. I hope I did. But people, as you know, talk like this about Australia, even people who don’t have many places to immigrate to. They say Australia is slow, smug and provincial – thin on history, too sheltered for its own good, a country without energy, or much imagination. People run from Australia, you know, even first-generation migrants.

A young man from Somalia, a multilingual son of a diplomat, drove me home from the airport in a taxi recently. He said people in Australia can’t drive and turn too aggressive behind the wheel because there are not enough cars on Australian roads. ‘You don’t,’ he said, ‘get a chance to get good because you are never humbled by the flows of traffic, by its self-organising logic, by the lessons it has in store for you. And so you are all impatience and rage and no humility.’ He was new here, this young man from Somalia. He had sharp eyes for this country, and an analytical bent. He made me remember how it was to be constantly itching with bewilderment, to compulsively be doing ‘compare and contrast’, to start falling for this country, loving it, while remaining unreconciled to it.

I am old at being here, very old. I have told my immigrant stories – good old immigrant ‘schtick’ – many times already, have written them up into books, have milked them for laughs, have turned them into tiny poignant fables. Twenty-two years… ‘Come on!’ (Not W.H. Auden this time – Lleyton Hewitt.) I am not a migrant anymore.

They say Australia is slow, smug and provincial – thin on history, too sheltered for its own good, a country without energy, or much imagination. People run from Australia, you know, even first-generation migrants.

I am a post-migrant, even though the beast, the accent, is still there – thick and sticky on my off days, impossible to peel off. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says 44 per cent of Australians are either born overseas or have at least one foreign-born parent. That makes me as statistically average as they come. Nothing to see here. Keep on moving.

Now, it’s only when I see a person who is new to being here that something inside me is triggered, a feeling of not quite being able to arrive. I know in my head that this, right here, is the shore, the coveted firm ground under my feet, but when I look around (and I strain … and strain) all I can see is the otherworldly blueness of the unending sea.

Portrait of Maria Tumarkin

Maria Tumarkin writes books, essays, reviews, and pieces for performance and radio; she collaborates with sound and visual artists and has had her work carved into dockside tiles. She is the author of four books of ideas. Her fourth (and latest) book Axiomatic won the 2018 Melbourne Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award (US), the Stella Prize, and the Prime Minister’s, NSW and Victorian Premiers’ Awards. Axiomatic was named a New Yorker Top 10 Book of 2019.

Maria is a recipient of the 2020 Windham Campbell Prize in the category of nonfiction. She holds a PhD in cultural history and is a senior lecturer in the creative writing program at the University of Melbourne.

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